How to Read Justice Kennedy’s Crucial Concurring Opinion in Hobby Lobby: Part II in a Series


In my last column, Part I of this Two-Part series, I argued that lower courts are justified in paying (indeed perhaps required to pay) close attention to Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion in this summer’s blockbuster Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, even though the “Opinion of the Court” in that case had the support of five Justices. Because Justice Kennedy was one of the five in the majority in this 5-4 case, his understanding of the majority opinion—on which he based his decision to join and which is explained in his concurring opinion—essentially represents the narrowest common grounds on which a majority of Justices agreed.

In the space below, I suggest a number of significant ways in which Justice Kennedy’s take on the majority opinion, which he says are among the “reasons . . . [he] join[ed] it[,]” counsels in favor of a narrow reading of what the Court decided. To see why this is so we must directly compare Justice Alito’s majority opinion (and the language and tone it used) with Justice Kennedy’s writing.

The Basic Structure of Justice Alito’s Opinion of the Court

Justice Alito’s opinion can be broken down into two big questions: (1) Does the Hobby Lobby corporation partake of protection under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)?; and (2) Is the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) regulations the “least restrictive means” to accomplish the “compelling” government interest—that female employees receive contraceptive service insurance at no cost—as required under RFRA?

On the first question, Justice Alito reasons quite broadly, and rests statutory protection for Hobby Lobby on the ground that a for-profit closely held corporation is itself a “person” capable of the “exercise of religion” under RFRA (rather than resting protection on the idea that the persons whom RFRA protects are the owners of a corporation, and the fact that Hobby Lobby’s owners are operating through the corporate form should not strip them of the statutory protection they have as individual human beings to practice religion). Because of this broad reasoning, and because Justice Kennedy did not say anything in his concurrence on this question, the Court (and lower courts) may find it difficult to deny RFRA coverage to publicly traded corporations whose managements try to assert claims for religious exemptions in the future.

But on the second question—concerning what RFRA protection means once RFRA applies—the breadth of the Court’s ruling is more open to debate, because Justice Kennedy did say things that might diverge from what Justice Alito said. I mention four such possible divergences here.

Some Ways in Which Justice Kennedy’s Understanding of the What the Majority Held Might Be a Narrow One

First, and perhaps least significant doctrinally but potentially important optically, while Justice Alito characterizes the test the government must meet to justify denying an exemption under RFRA as “exceptionally demanding,” Justice Kennedy is content to call it “stringent” (citing his own opinion in a prior case). This subtle language difference may send slightly different messages to lower courts about how tough to be in evaluating arguments put forth by the federal government in future cases.

Second, on the question whether the government has a “compelling” interest (the kind of interest it needs under RFRA) “in ensuring that all women have access to all FDA-approved contraceptives without cost sharing,” Justice Alito spends a great deal of space explaining why it is “arguable” that the government should lose on this question. In particular, he discusses how the exceptions the Affordable Care Act creates for existing health plans to be “grandfathered”—and thus not required to provide contraceptive coverage—undermine the notion that the government’s interest is compelling. Justice Alito ultimately finds it “unnecessary to adjudicate this issue [because] [w]e will assume that the interest in guaranteeing cost-free access . . . is compelling.”

Justice Kennedy on this question writes in a way that suggests a much stronger likelihood that he would, if push came to shove, find (as the four dissenters did) the government’s interest to be compelling, notwithstanding the grandfather exceptions. He says that is “it is important to confirm that a premise of the Court’s opinion is its assumption that the . . . regulation here furthers a legitimate and compelling interest in the health of the female employees.” It is true that he uses the word “assumption”—which reminds us that the Court assumed but did not decide the government’s interest was compelling. But one wonders why it is important to “confirm” an “assumption” unless the assumption is likely to be correct. Also, Justice Kennedy starts this part of his discussion by saying that the federal government “makes the case that the mandate serves . . . [a] compelling interest” (emphasis added). “Makes the case” is a term that can be read to mean simply “argues” or “contends,” but more often it is used to mean “provides good reasons to think.”

If Justice Kennedy is, in fact, sending a signal here that government-granted grandfather exceptions based on convenience and ease of transition do not undermine the compelling nature of a government interest, and if that is how lower courts read his tone here, then such a signal could have important consequences for the range of other government interests that are asserted in subsequent RFRA cases, and other cases in which the government needs to establish a compelling interest. Government often needs to grant exceptions to facilitate enactment of big new regulatory schemes, and if the inclusion of such exceptions jeopardizes the idea that the government has compelling interests on which it is acting, a great deal more government regulation would be vulnerable.

The Key Questions of What the Less Restrictive Alternative in Hobby Lobby Was and How Competing Interests Should Be Weighed

 Third, on the important question whether the Government should lose because it could pay for the contraceptive coverage itself (rather than requiring employers to provide it), and government payment is a “less restrictive means” to accomplish the government’s (compelling) objective, Justice Alito seems to try to have his cake and eat it too. He says ultimately that “we need not rely” on this possible accommodation as a basis for Hobby Lobby’s victory because the federal government could also simply tell insurance companies (rather than employers) to provide the coverage (as the government does for non-profit corporations), but this language comes only after Justice Alito had already spent a lot of ink explaining why the government-payment option seems to be required under RFRA. Indeed, Justice Alito observes that it is “hard to understand” the Government’s argument to the contrary. Moreover, even though Justice Alito writes that the Court “need not rely” on this accommodation, he doesn’t say whether he means simply that there are two possible accommodations that explain Hobby Lobby’s victory (in which case neither of them is one that must be relied on), or instead that the second accommodation (having the insurance companies provide the coverage) is the statutorily required accommodation in this case, such that the Court doesn’t decide whether, in the absence of such an option, the government would have to pay itself. Note that, unlike the language concerning whether there is a compelling interest, Justice Alito does not say the Court declines “to adjudicate” this issue.

Justice Kennedy, by contrast, does not equivocate here, and makes clear that, as he reads the majority opinion he is joining, the Court is not deciding the question whether the Government would have to pay itself if the insurance-company-accommodation were not available: “In discussing th[e] [government-payment] alternative, the Court does not address whether the proper response to a legitimate claim for freedom in the health care arena is for the Government to create an additional program [, because] [i]n these cases, it is the Court’s understanding that an accommodation may be made to the employers without imposition of a whole new program or burden on the Government.” For this reason, he says, the “Court does not resolve” the question whether creating a new government spending program could be required.

Fourth, and more generally, on the question of how much cost the government must be willing to bear to accommodate religious exercise, Justice Kennedy notes: “[T]his existing model [i.e., having the insurance company bear whatever cost may be involved], designed precisely for this problem, might well suffice to distinguish the instant cases from many others in which it is more difficult and expensive to accommodate a governmental program to countless religious claims based on an alleged statutory right of free exercise” (emphasis added).

And, importantly, he also says, apparently in response to concerns that federal sex discrimination workplace protection will go by the boards—a prospect that Justice Alito’s opinion pointedly did not deny—that religious exercise, while important, cannot “unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling.” Justice Alito does acknowledge that courts must take “adequate account of the burden a requested accommodation imposes on non-beneficiaries,” but he makes this concession in a footnote that literally marginalizes the concerns of third parties.

Justice Kennedy’s language makes clear that he will, in deciding when an exemption under RFRA is warranted, surely consider costs, both to the government and to third persons, as a counterbalance to any assertion of religious liberty. Indeed, in some ways, Justice Kennedy’s opinion is eerily similar in substance to Justice Blackmun’s writing in National League of Cities that I discussed in Part I of this series; Justice Kennedy recognized the right to an exemption in the case before him, but he indicated more directly than did Justice Alito that in future RFRA cases some kind of balance—rather than an absolute or near-absolute entitlement to exemption—is called for.

If this is so, and if (as I think they can and should) lower courts take their cue from the writing of this fifth Justice in the majority in Hobby Lobby, then Justice Kennedy’s writing may go a fair ways in determining exactly how many companies can successfully use Hobby Lobby to obtain exemptions by suing under RFRA.